Virginia Woolf in Rodmell
Monks House Rodmell Sussex England
After World War One
My great grandparents were born before the turn of the century, he was a Rodmell man born and bred and she was a Lewes girl.They married in Rodmell church and lived in a tied cottage at the bottom of the village on the way to the Brooks, so called because the River Ouse, which ran the length of Sussex from Slaugham in the north down to the open sea at Newhaven, used to overflow at high tide causing water meadows, where cattle and sheep grazed and watercress grew. The Brooks are still there but the river has been given a man-made channel of concrete through which to flow.
From their home in Briar Cottage my great grandparents walked up the one and only road called The Street to St.Peters Church where great grandfather was the sexton and great grandmother arranged the flowers from their garden. On their way they had to pass Monks House which Mr. and Mrs. Woolf bought in 1919 in a Lewes auction for their holiday home, after the old owner Mr.Verrall, died.
Monks House had no electricity, the water was from a Well in the garden and the earth closet ( toilet) was out there too. Bathing was in a tin tub in front of the open fire. Virginia used to write in the shed at the bottom of the garden under the church wall and sit out in front of it on summer evenings with her London friends and the Bloomsbury set.
Great grandfather bumped into Leonard Woolf one day and became his gardener and handyman, they worked side by side taming the wilderness. Leonard was also a prolific writer. In the mornings he and Virginia wrote, in the afternoons they gardened, weather permitting, and in the evenings they read by lamplight. Virginia was not brought up to do housework or cooking so my great grandmother took them dinners of mash and stew because she was a great cook, having their own chickens, vegetable garden and eight mouths to feed - ten including theirs and twelve with the Woolfs.
Back garden and writing shed
Rare recording of Virginia
Things progressed for the Woolfs, Virginia sold a book so was able to have some mod. cons. installed and they engaged a village woman as Cook/ Housekeeper. This was a good job because great granny Rachel became ill and died. When they buried her in the churchyard behind Monks House, she was so heavy that the coffin straps snapped and Rachel ended up face down in the grave instead of facing her Lord. I have this on good authority because Virginia's housekeeper attended the funeral and told Virginia who noted it in her Diary.
Great granddad William then grew too old to do so much gardening so Leonard employed a Gardener, a local village man. After Rachel died William went further up The Street to live with one of his daughters in Vine Cottage. I remember seeing him in their large side garden behind the flint walls, hoeing out the weeds or pottering about in his shed in the far corner.
In the 1960s Rodmell had a building boom so now there is a detached house on the old garden plot, but numbers one and two Vine Cottages are still there.
The next generation
My granddad didn't actually work for the Woolfs but he was an active member of the Rodmell Labour Party which Leonard had started up and used to attend the meetings in Monks House. He and my grandmother separated so he asked Leonard for advice on how to get a divorce. They had married during the first World War in 1916 and separated at the beginning the second World War.
Wars upset and unsettle people, Virginia with her recurring depressions, Leonard with his Jewish fear of the Nazi's and my grandparents who had three children and a hard life. Their problem was that granny would not have more children and who can blame her? She never gave granddad the divorce he wanted but he went off to live with his fancy woman anyway - In the same village no less!
Granny was a Land Girl during World War Two, needs must and doing her bit for the country. My aunt was a teenager at the time and was casually employed by the Woolfs to go and clean up after they had weekend guests, this earned her the money to buy material and make some new clothes for the village hops, where she met a Canadian soldier. In due course they married and she went on the war brides ship from Liverpool to Canada.
During this second war Virginia had had enough of her depressions and migraines so she left Leonard a note one tea-time in March 1941, walked down to the Brooks, waded into the River Ouse with her coat pockets filled with stones and submerged herself until she drowned.
After the war both Leonard and my grandmother were getting older so she only popped into Monks House on an irregular basis to do a bit of cleaning and return his clean laundry. I went with her on more than one occasion. Do not touch anything! Especially do not touch any of the books and papers that were lying around. But I got to help granny sort out the laundry which she would take home to wash, dry and iron, with flat irons in those days. They were not electric so you heated them up on the stove; as you ironed with one the other one would be heating up and the handles got so hot you had to hold them with a cloth.
My grandmother died in 1966 in Rodmell village where she was born and lived all her life, she was a hefty and hard-working woman with a heart of gold, whom I loved dearly, so this is my tribute to her.
Leonard kept bees in a hive in his side garden (they had purchased a neighbouring farmer's field when Virginia had sold yet more books). I used to watch him tend them with his one-piece coverall and his netted hat on, from gran's cottage across the road. He lived to a ripe old age and died in 1969 in the village he and Virginia had also made their home.
Monks House is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public on certain days during the summer. It has it's own car park down by the Brooks.
Virginia Woolf at Monks House
Leonard Woolf the sole survivor
Onwards and Downwards by Rachel West
Have you read Virginia Woolf's books?
© 2015 Bren Hall